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The Court of Brian Merriman

WE were taught a certain amount of Brian Merriman’s Midnight Court in national school but, of course, only selected lines and As Gaeilge. It would never have done to have read all the poem, much less learned it and definitely not in English translation.


Ba ghnáth mé siúl le ciumhais na habhann ,
Ar bháinseach úr is an drúcht go trom,
That was fine but we could never hear about,
The devil take her and all she showed
For I found her myself on the public road
On the naked earth with a bare backside…

The poem even achieved the official Irish stamp of approval for a piece of literature when Frank O’Connor’s translation was banned in 1946. This attitude to Merriman lasted for quite a number of years and when moves started to commemorate both himself and his poem, certain voices were raised in objection.

Merriman was born in Ennistymon and it seems that his mother married after he was born. She married a stonemason but nobody knows whether he was Brian’s father or not. It is suggested in some quarters that his father might have been a member of the clergy.

His great poem is written in the form of a dream where he falls asleep on the shores of Lough Graney and then finds himself at a fairy court. There women discuss the lack of husbands, young unmarried clergy and young women being forced to marry old men. Some feel that the themes of Merriman’s poem where, in the words of the old man, he rails against marriage, women and the clergy are meant to reflect his own life.

At a young age the family moved to East Clare and settled in the Flagmount/Feakle area around Lough Graney. Here he probably attended a hedge school and the family must have gotten some land because Brian farmed around 20 acres in the 1790s. He was a successful farmer and won prizes from the Royal Dublin Society for growing flax.

He married a local woman and they had two daughters and he also supported his family by working as a hedge school master. He taught for a number of years at Kilclaren and then in a school near his farm. He might also have worked as a tutor to local better-off families.

Merriman moved, with his family, to Limerick around 1800 where he taught in Old Clare Street. He must have been well known because his death was reported in the General Advertiser and Limerick Gazette on July 29 1805. The notice read “Died on Saturday morning, in Old Clare Street, after a few hours illness, Mr Brian Merriman, teacher of Mathematics”.

Some days later a similar report appeared in the Dublin Journal. He was buried in Feakle cemetery. The exact location of his grave is unknown but the location of his house in Limerick is marked with a wall plaque.

Down through the years there have been many translations of his poem including those by Aarland Usher, David Marcus and Seamus Heaney. Brendan Behan is said to have read his own translation one night in a pub in Dublin but lost the manuscript a few days later.

Brian Merriman, hedge school master and poet died in Limerick on July 27, 1805 – 207 years ago this week.

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